2011 Scion tC
On to performance. The 2011 tC, fully pimped out, does an uncomfortable price overlap with a 2011 Ford Mustang V-6 that will smack it down with sub-6-second acceleration runs all day long. Tucked under the $20,000 limit, the tC outdoes any front-drive coupe from Japan at the price, with juiced-up power and grip that's just aching for some kind of forced-induction abduction.
There's but one drivetrain you'll get in any tC, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing and a variable intake manifold. It's related to the bigger four in the base Camry, and reels off 180 horsepower with a smooth, churning resonance with a slight burble in its tuned exhaust that surfaces around 3200 rpm. It's by no means a zingy powerplant, but it gets the job done from a 600-rpm idle up to its 6400-rpm redline. With the larger engine (up 0.1 liters), the four puts out 18 more hp and 11 pound-feet over the '10 edition, and Scion says that's enough to boost the tC to 60 mph in about 7.6 seconds with the manual gearbox, or 8.3 seconds with the automatic.
Scion pairs up the four with a six-speed manual transmission with a nicely weighted shift lever and a crazy-light clutch uptake, or a sequential-shift automatic with its manual mode hanging off the left slot from Drive. Guys will choose the stick, but there's relatively little shame delivered with the automatic. It'll remember your driving style, so downshifts will come at a decent clip if you hammer on the throttle or slide the shift lever left, and down. Scion's skipping any kind of paddles for now, which we hate, but at this price point it's not much of a surprise. Either version nets you 23/31 mpg, up a couple miles per gallon on both counts over last year.
On the roads in and out of San Diego, the tC's ride quality came up at the top of its charming list. And in this case that's not fatal for a sport coupe. Even with 18-inch stock wheels (and 19-inchers an option), the tC rides calmly over the kind of perennial construction you see all over downtown San Diego and the mild pavement waves that ripples over I-8 eastbound. Toyota had tC hatches with TRD racing pieces installed, and the thick stabilizer bars turn the car into more of a sledgehammer on these kinds of streets, but an unmodified tC and its independent suspension is a fairly nerve-soothing choice among sporty cars. Electric power steering actually feels good here, too, as do the bigger all-disc brakes.